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Private LTE/5G: More of a Concept Than a Product


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As the cellular part of the mobile industry shifts to 5G technology, its singular focus on consumer applications has pointed the spotlight on enhanced mobile broadband (i.e., the same mobile broadband service you had before, only somewhat faster). Other enhancements that would only benefit enterprise users have gotten lost in the noise. One of those initiatives is the idea of providing large enterprises with personalized private cellular networks that include exclusive base stations that operate on dedicated radio channels (most likely in the CBRS band). These private networks would also deliver mobile access and an application-specific class of service (CoS) to internal users over whatever range of geography the organization requires.
What is Private LTE/5G?
If you haven’t grasped the full impact by now, private LTE/private 5G is a big idea; I use the term “private LTE/5G” because many early implementations are based on LTE technology initially, but upgradeable to 5G. In any event, this is a potential wireless solution for some enterprises that was never available before.
However, after sitting through more vendor presentations on the subject of private LTE/5G than I can count and reading more articles than I care to remember—I would still be hard-pressed to provide a clear, succinct definition of what private LTE/5G encompasses. I suspect the problem stems from the fact that the parties promoting private LTE/5G have yet to reach a final decision about how they intend to make this vision a reality.
In the absence of a clear understanding of what the product is, developing a business case to support its funding will be a jaunty ride indeed. It can help you get into the right ballpark by pinning providers down on a few basic points. These may include verifying whether you're purchasing a private network with dedicated radio infrastructure, switching end-user devices, or simply renting a special service delivered by your public infrastructure. To clarify, both options are on the table.
Let’s take the early days of the private LTE/5G market into account, and list the major questions that need answering in order to analyze, justify, and build a business case for it.
Private LTE/5G Today
Two key characteristics that distinguish early enterprise adopters for private LTE/5G are: they’re substantial and located in Europe. It’s important to note that adopters aren’t only large in terms of sales. Their operations typically cover a large geographic footprint like airports, shipping terminals, and in mines that are best served with wide-area cellular technology.
Among the names announced as trial sites for private LTE/5G are BMW, Toyota, the Port of Antwerp, the Port of Zeebrugge, Air France (three airports), and PGE Systemy (Polish power grid operator). In the U.S., Walmart, Phillips 66, Dallas Love Field, and even Salt Lake City’s Murray City School District have shown interest.
Providers in these projects get divided between cellular equipment manufacturers like Ericsson (Air France), Nokia (PGE Systemy, Port of Zeebrugge), and service providers like Orange (Port of Antwerp), AT&T (Phillips 66), Verizon (Walmart), and China Unicom/China Mobile (BMW). There are also several other companies like Federated Wireless (Dallas Love Field), Altran, Equinix, and Vertiv, showing interest in becoming private LTE/5G providers.
In February of this year, Federated Wireless, a startup and one of the first companies to offer a Spectrum Access System for assigning radio channels on Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), announced a new connectivity-as-a-service offering for private LTE/5G. Leveraging partnerships with Amazon’s AWS Marketplace and Microsoft’s Azure Marketplace, the company is proposing a “single click-to-buy/deploy managed service.” I can understand buying socks on Amazon with a single click. But deploying radio networks involves trained personnel, site surveys, tower space, trucks, tools, test equipment, and many other things that I can’t see being organized, assembled, and deployed with one-click on anything but the genie’s magic lamp.
Reports from the field regarding these early trials are few and far between at this point. However, the first meaningful intelligence comes from Air France’s Christian Regnier, enterprise technical architect for critical wireless speaking at the 5G Realised London event in September. While Mr. Regnier confirmed his company is going forward from its pilot to live deployment of a private LTE (upgradeable to 5G) operating in the newly available 2.6 GHz band, the experience hasn’t been all wine and roses.
Reflecting on the experience, Mr. Regnier said, “traditional network operators, as well as network vendors, don’t have the in-house expertise to serve the enterprise market with industrial-grade private LTE and 5G networking. They need hand-holding by market specialists, in the form of enterprise customers and system integrators, if they are to be any more than a conduit for networking gear.”
While Mr. Regnier’s comments fall short of a glowing endorsement, they do demonstrate something we’ve known to be true for some time: selling to carriers and selling to enterprise users are two different worlds where the roles, understanding, expectations, and even the vocabulary are vastly different. Why do you think companies like Cisco that sell into both markets maintain separate sales forces for each?
The basic question for enterprise buyers becomes, what is private LTE/5G and will it give us what we need?
A Long List of Unknowns
At this stage of the game, I would consider private LTE/5G to be more of a “concept” than an actual product. As most of our readers are responsible for buying products, particularly ones that meet their organizations’ requirements (e.g., capacity, availability, reliability, security, price, business justification, etc.), the first thing the providers will need to do is give us an adequate description of what it is they’re selling.
Here’s a list of questions to shift the conversation from “concept” to “reality” mode.
  1. Is private LTE/5G a product or a service? Based on the name, we would assume a “private network” is a product we would buy. However, 5G also gives the mobile operators the ability to do what they call “network slicing,” where they could define different priorities and service class offerings in partitions within the public infrastructure for specific customers. Which is it?
  2. If the vision involves a true “private network”, who’s providing the equipment? Cellular infrastructure companies like Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei build very complex systems designed for the scale and unique requirements of public network operators. We’ve had experiments with trying to use carrier equipment to meet enterprise needs (I once had a large client buy an AT&T Number 5 ESS central office to use as a PBX- not my recommendation), and the results were a case study in “not fit for purpose.”
  3. Does it meet the requirements of the job? If you need outdoor wireless voice and data coverage over a wide area, private cellular could be an excellent solution. However, as a potential buyer, my first request to the provider would be to improve their public network coverage in my area so I wouldn’t have to consider anything as radical as a new private network. I’m guessing that a carrier pitching a private network on the basis deficiencies in their public one could lead to a rather difficult conversation.
  4. If a provider is serious about building me a private LTE/5G network, that raises any number of questions:
  • Who is going to design and build this thing? The carriers’ engineers and construction teams are pretty busy getting their own 5G networks built, and if Air France’s experience is any indicator, they might not be the best choice anyway.
  • Are the design tools they use for the macro cell network granular enough to address private network scale?
  • How is the whole subscriber interface module (SIM) thing going to work? Network access, user authentication, over-the-air (OTA) encryption, and a host of other functions are tied to the (SIM). Who is going to administer and produce the SIMs, and how will the whole process work?
  • Will devices with my private network SIMs be able to roam onto the public cellular network, and if so, which carrier(s)’ cell network?
  • Could this solution reduce or eliminate the need for my private Wi-Fi network? Not only would Wi-Fi replacement call for significant investments for indoor coverage, but we would also have to get cellular data cards (with compatible SIMs) for all of our laptops and other Wi-Fi connected devices. Those devices would still need Wi-Fi access because that’s how our users will connect them in their homes.
  • Who is responsible for ongoing maintenance, troubleshooting, and traffic monitoring? One thing we’ve learned in running private Wi-Fi networks for 20-years is that the job is never done. Is the task of “ensuring ongoing performance” going to be my headache, or is the part of what we’re buying from the provider?
  • What happens when 6G shows up? Enterprise customers’ biggest complaint about private Wi-Fi is the need to continuously upgrade the infrastructure for each new improvement in the radio technology (e.g., Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6e, etc.). enhancements in cellular technology are ongoing. But who is responsible for the upgrades?
  • Last but not least, what’s this thing going to cost? Frankly, the whole private LTE/5G “concept” is so loosely defined, I haven’t even gotten around to thinking about prices. Hopefully, we would be able to use off-the-shelf cellular devices with appropriate SIMs (if that doesn’t happen, forget the whole idea). Estimates of ongoing maintenance costs, not to mention computing an approximation of potential savings, out-front costs, required testing, and network management equipment—would be a lollapalooza regardless of the outcome.
Now What?
When listening to the carriers’ marketing pitch for private LTE/5G and Industrial internet of things (IIoT), you would think that the last few generations of industrial engineers have been sitting around on toadstools waiting for ideas from the phone company. The carrier also appears to have missed one of the biggest trends in business, which is to focus on core competencies and outsource everything else- private LTE/5G networks would fit into that “everything else” category.
The reality is that the resurgence of U.S. manufacturing has been fueled by phenomenal advances in industrial engineering and integrated manufacturing. These advances allow companies to automate a growing number of manufacturing and distribution tasks that can make our products cheaper despite our higher labor costs.
Digitizing those “uncarpeted” parts of the organization to deliver on that promise has involved implementing countless wireless solutions to support business-critical communications requirements. These solutions use a combination of Wi-Fi, possibly Land Mobile Radio (LMR) network for PTT, and any number of proprietary wireless solutions or emerging standards like LoRa. If successful, private LTE/5G could add another option to that list.
How big an impact 5G cellular has on these plans remains to be seen. However, if the operators are serious about private LTE/5G as a potential revenue source, they’ll need to paint a much clearer picture of their offerings than what we’ve seen thus far.